Self-harm or self-mutilation in adolescents

It is Thursday evening and I sit at the table with my son. As usual during dinner, I inquire about his school day. So also this evening. "And how was it at school today?" "Oh, nice." "Tell me a little bit more, how did the collaboration on your project with that girl go from the classroom?" Oh well, but ... "But what is there?" Well, I can not really tell you. "

"Then maybe you should not do it." I want to tell you and she did not say that I can not say it to you. "Okay, what's up?" Well ... "he pauses for a moment before he goes on "She cuts herself with a knife ..."

To my horror

After his revelation, I continue talking to him. I ask what he thinks of it, what he does with him or maybe he knows why she does it. During the conversation I find out that she is not the only girl in his class. Besides her, he just managed to name two more names of girls from his class who also do this. I'm afraid of that. When I think back to my own years in high school, I could not name anyone. Was I so blind in that time? Or is autodilation more of this time? Is it indeed more common?

I fear that ...

What is self-mutilation?

Automutilation is the word for self-harm or self-mutilation. There are different grades, from scratching the skin because it is itching to even amputating limbs. Sometimes the goal is to intentionally hurt yourself and this can be done in different ways. Cutting or scratching is only one way, but it can also manifest itself in hair pulling, hitting, banging head against the wall, breaking bones or drinking harmful (toxic) substances. Fortunately, these last two extremities are much less common.
Automutilation can be a symptom of a mental illness, such as bordeline personality disorder, but that is (fortunately) certainly not always the case.

Tatoos and piercings

Tattoos and piercings can also be seen as a form of self-harm. Although the emphasis is on 'beautification' of the body it can also give a 'kick of pain'.

All ages

Self-harm has many manifestations and many different causes. It occurs not only in adolescents, but at all ages. However, it is more common in adolescents aged 14 and 17 and especially in girls.

Adolescents and self-harm

A child does not have to have a serious personality disorder in order to want to hurt himself. Sometimes it can be a matter of 'wanting to feel'.

During puberty, all kinds of feelings, emotions and hormones rage through your body. They feel everything, but still can not post everything. They can feel empty, precisely because they feel so much they can not do anything with. It seems contradictory, not feeling anything because you feel so much.
The desire to feel something can take physical forms. When they scratch or cut themselves, they feel something again. In this case, pain. But feeling pain can sometimes be more pleasant than feeling nothing at all. The void is destroying you. It is only for a short time ... If they have done this, often the shame or sense of guilt will follow.

Tormenting itself is an attempt to communicate negative emotions and to deal with emotional pain. Because of the domination and especially the tangible physical pain, the emotional pain can seem less. Until the physical pain subsides and the emotional pain starts to dominate again. And that happens precisely because of the feeling of guilt and shame about self-mutilation, ever before.

Feelings of guilt and shame

It is precisely those feelings of shame and guilt that make it difficult to talk about this with your son or daughter. Because by himself he / she will not start soon and adolescents are masterful in hiding their self-mutilation. After all, the bathroom door is hermetically sealed.

Low self esteem

Young people who damage themselves often have low self-esteem and little confidence in themselves and / or their environment, but there may be several reasons why someone is more susceptible to it: character, predisposition, upbringing, family situation or experiences. They often find it hard to connect with peers, have trouble expressing themselves or feel insecure about their sexual identity.


Damaging yourself can also give you a certain sense of pride, control over your body. Proud of the pain you can tolerate. The calming effect of the released endorphins can give an extra boost.

To want to be part of

Adolescents are also very sensitive to what others think and want to belong to a group. It is therefore tempting to take this kind of action from one another to want to belong to the group.

Risk factors

There are a number of circumstances that can increase the chance of self-mutilation:

- (extremely) low self-esteem
- great (unseen) sadness
- age 14-17 years
- insecurity of sexual identity
- compulsive behavior
- difficulty in connecting peers

What to do as a parent?

Take the signal from your son or daughter seriously. It is logical that you might be startled if you discover it, but do not reject your child. Try to understand the behavior and discover what is behind it. Accusing your child only works counterproductive. Realize that your child does not do it to shock, they try to hide it. However, it is an expression of pain and / or emptiness that they can not deal with.

The most effective treatment is a combination of regular help (GP, therapy) and cognitive behavioral therapy (looking at behavior).

There is also a national foundation for self-harm (LSZ). More information can be found on

Mini documentary: 'Never just like that'

Video: Understanding Adolescent Self-Injury

Leave Your Comment